Jomo Kenyatta 1897 – 22 August 1978) was a Kenyan anti-colonial activist and politician who governed Kenya as its Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964 and then as its first President from 1964 to his death in 1978. He was the country’s first indigenous head of government and played a significant role in the transformation of Kenya from a colony of the British Empire into an independent republic. Ideologically an African nationalist and conservative, he led the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party from 1961 until his death.
Kenyatta was born to Kikuyu farmers in Kiambu, British East Africa. Educated at a mission school, he worked in various jobs before becoming politically engaged through the Kikuyu Central Association. In 1929, he travelled to London to lobby for Kikuyu land affairs. During the 1930s, he studied at Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East, University College London, and the London School of Economics. In 1938, he published an anthropological study of Kikuyu life before working as a farm labourer in Sussex during the Second World War. Influenced by his friend George Padmore, he embraced anti-colonialist and Pan-African ideas, co-organizing the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester. He returned to Kenya in 1946 and became a school principal. In 1947, he was elected President of the Kenya African Union, through which he lobbied for independence from British colonial rule, attracting widespread indigenous support but animosity from white settlers. In 1952, he was among the Kapenguria Six arrested and charged with masterminding the anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising. Although protesting his innocence—a view shared by later historians—he was convicted. He remained imprisoned at Lokitaung until 1959 and was then exiled to Lodwar until 1961.
On his release, Kenyatta became President of KANU and led the party to victory in the 1963 general election. As Prime Minister, he oversaw the transition of the Kenya Colony into an independent republic, of which he became president in 1964. Desiring a one-party state, he transferred regional powers to his central government, suppressed political dissent, and prohibited KANU’s only rival—Oginga Odinga’s leftist Kenya People’s Union—from competing in elections. He promoted reconciliation between the country’s indigenous ethnic groups and its European minority, although his relations with the Kenyan Indians were strained and Kenya’s army clashed with Somali separatists in the North Eastern Province during the Shifta War. His government pursued capitalist economic policies and the “Africanisation” of the economy, prohibiting non-citizens from controlling key industries. Education and healthcare were expanded, while UK-funded land redistribution favoured KANU loyalists and exacerbated ethnic tensions. Under Kenyatta, Kenya joined the Organisation of African Unity and the Commonwealth of Nations, espousing a pro-Western and anti-communist foreign policy amid the Cold War. Kenyatta died in office and was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi.
Kenyatta was a controversial figure. Prior to Kenyan independence, many of its white settlers regarded him as an agitator and malcontent, although across Africa he gained widespread respect as an anti-colonialist. During his presidency, he was given the honorary title of Mzee and lauded as the Father of the Nation, securing support from both the black majority and the white minority with his message of reconciliation. Conversely, his rule was criticised as dictatorial, authoritarian, and neo-colonial, of favouring Kikuyu over other ethnic groups, and of facilitating the growth of widespread corruption.